From monologue to family man
Upon meeting monologist Spalding Gray, he mentions an appointment with his therapist - spurring a conversation about our respective therapists and "issues". While reports from the couch are not uncommon during a New York lunch, this conversation has an unusual twist: Those who follow Gray's work know every personal detail of his life.
That doesn't bother Gray - he says he likes when people follow his life from monologue to monologue and knows their details; it's easier than coming in midway into his life and not understanding what he's about. Since so much is known about his life, however, Gray experiences a lot of false intimacy from people. "It's not so much that I can't walk up to Washington Square Park for a few hours a day...but there are people who also understand that it's their projection when they say, 'I feel like I know you, but I know I don't.' And the way that I work, it's very odd, because I'm more intimate with an anonymous group, at times, than with the woman I live with."
Truly in a field of his own, Gray's legendary monologues bring significance to the seemingly insignificant details of life. His current monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, recounts one day in the life of his family - Marissa, Forrest, Theo and their mother, Kathie - on Sag Harbor, Long Island.
With his familiar desk, microphone, notebook and glass of water, Gray begins his story, describing the view from his bedroom window: A beautiful sunrise over a church steeple. But, as a harried morning with the kids appears inevitable, he asks us in mock horror, "How did I come to be here?" The audience responds with uproarious laughter, remembering Gray as a formerly childless New Yorker who was committed to staying that way. But now, Captain Crunch and even the Spice Girls have new meaning for Gray, who at 52, became a father for the first time. Morning, Noon and Night reveals for us the events, both painful and joyous, which have led to his current "domestic" status.
After ordering our salads and acknowledging our vain attempt at being healthy, Gray tells me he's lost about eight pounds. "...As a result of what, I don't know. The opening of this show? Being on tour again? I don't know. And the more that I see I've lost weight, the more anxiety I get because I think I'm dying and I lose more weight. It's really about not being able to embrace and celebrate the good place I'm in right now."
"It's hard to take in the good stuff?" I ask.
"It's a challenge," he responds.
Gray then relays a story that could well be from one of his monologues. A doctor telephones, explaining he's a fan and would like to know where Gray is playing. This total stranger goes on to say, "I just read the book, Morning, Noon and Night
and you must be so happy!" Gray's response is, "Oh yeah, right...if you only knew."
He laughs, then adds a thought: "But that's old stuff, probably best expressed in my monologue, Monster in a Box, which is really a nervous breakdown, a documentation of one. So, I'm just trying to get into a clear place through therapy, so I can work from as good a place as I did in Morning, Noon and Night."
Such a personal process as a way to make theater begs asking Gray for his thoughts on the current state of the art. "I'm the wrong guy to ask," he says. "I'm so out of the loop. I've seen very little of what's going on in New York." Still, he musters enough details for a fascinating and thoughtful commentary on contemporary theater as art form, artistic process, and educational tool.
"The kind of theater I'm interested in is always theater in the way that The Wooster Group is truly designed as theater - it couldn't be changed to any other medium. I have no interest in naturalistic plays that really should be on television or in the movies. I do go to see Beth Henley's plays. They're not naturalism to me; they're not realism. They're kind of whimsical, almost female Chekhovian mood pieces, and they could only be staged in a theater." Regarding current New York plays, Gray relays, "I'd like to see The Vagina Monologues because I'm interested in any kind of direct, audience-performer relationship."
Asking Gray if film - thanks to the advent of home video - has influenced contemporary theater, he responds, "It totally influences it. So because of that, theater, as artificial as it is, stands out even more as being that. I like the Gurney play [Ancestral Voices, also at Lincoln Center] very much because it's a reading. Not unlike how I work from a table; it's like a radio play. And you, as an audience, actively visualize with your imagination...therefore, it doesn't have to be overacted. You don't have to have people going through doors making fake, naturalistic door slamming. There's nothing worse for me than a fourth-wall set where you're asked to accept that over here is a solid wall and a door with a life outside it. When you see fake scenery, you think of the whole thing as a sham, and then you see it as 'acting.'"
Gray himself played the Narrator in Our Town at Lincoln Center in the '80s, perhaps the most experimental character Thornton Wilder ever created. "My farewell to theater...my personal one, whether it's been acknowledged by anyone else or not was Our Town. That was the perfect role: the go-between, the facilitator, an in-it-and-out-of-it Brechtian character. [Now] I could never imagine shouting to the person across from me, pretending that the audience isn't there, to reach the back of the house."
As a pioneer of the experimental theater movement, Gray shares his thoughts on the importance of developmental groups, such as The Wooster Group. "A freelance writer from Rolling Stone or something asked me what advice I'd give to a 20 year old who's come to the city, seeking to do theater. And I couldn't get to it. It took a long time to get to it and then I realized it was doing it every day - process." Although Gray is no longer performing with The Wooster Group, which he co-founded with Macarthur fellow Elizabeth LeCompte, he explains that the company is "focused" on process. He feels this is missing in theater today and that people are looking for strategies for instant success.
"I was so blessed with the Performance Garage," Gray says, recalling where his mingling with monologues began. "I could just say to our audience, I'm going to do this little monologue, Sex and Death to the Age of 14, on Friday night or whatever, and people would come...15 people. I'd tape record it, listen to it back, develop it. The audience developed around me, so the process of evolving the monologues was also the process of developing the audience." For Gray, instant success, "would not have allowed me to continue in the process of developing the next monologue, to the point where they became so much more polished than the first one in their style and form. It was my workshop."
As Gray came of age artistically at the Performance Garage, surrounding him was a glorious surfeit of workshop-minded and process-oriented colleagues. This included the rest of The Wooster Group as well as Andre Gregory's Manhattan Project and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which were all "booked together as a group, called The Bunch...we were feeding each other in the most creative ways."
"When we weren't working," Gray recalls, "we were seeing each other's work. That was the heyday of experimental theater - which didn't evolve. One could call it the Off-Broadway movement, but it was a singular thing unto itself. And it stopped and went back to what it was before that. Today, small Off-Broadway theaters are doing original productions but they are not process-oriented companies evolving a body of work. That is not happening off Broadway, not that I'm aware of."
As for The Bunch, Gray and his contemporaries "began getting older and having families and had to go into something more commercially viable." Gray himself, a Lincoln Center mainstay, is admittedly no longer a starving artist, but knows his roots. "We all just got by. We subsidized ourselves with unemployment. We would pay ourselves, then lay each other off. New York is one of the only cities in America where actors can collect unemployment because they are gainfully employed at times!"
Turning to the subject to children, Gray reports that his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Marissa, is very creative and dances. Regarding his 7-year-old son, Gray says "Forrest is already a very reflexive person. He's definitely heading toward being some sort of...if he wanted to...writer, recorder." Concerned about the decline of school art programs, Gray offers his ideas and ideals at once. "Someone called me from the New York Times and asked me, if you had $150,000,000, what program would you put it into in the city? And I said 'definitely education,' but I wish I had singled out the arts when I said that, because, specifically, that's very important."
Gray, in fact, is eager to share many of the experiences he's had working with children's educational programs. "There's a thing called Teaching America, and they had me do a session in a school in Washington Heights. I did a storytelling workshop with them, right in the classroom. And it was wonderful. I did it in three different schools where I would just have them tell their day from the time they woke up. They try to point out attention to detail and never say and stuff and like. It was a great exercise, really good...simple, yet difficult to get them up on their feet and do something simple. They're so programmed to think their everyday life is not important."
Everyday life is Gray's bread and butter. In Morning, Noon and Night, he explores ordinary daily events such as getting the kids off to school and putting them to bed at night. Gray relates that his previous monologue, It's a Slippery Slope "...is a companion piece, the two are interconnected. Slippery Slope is really just a slide down into Morning, Noon and Night." In Slippery Slope, Gray discloses the extramarital affair from which his son was conceived. I ask Gray, "Since your life is your art, are there repercussions?"
"They're always there," he replies.
Gray then relates that his stepmother had a very negative reaction to a previous monologue and now they no longer speak. Also, he expects his ex-wife Renee is having negative reactions in that they no longer communicate either. And as for his children, particularly with regards to Morning, Noon and Night? "The kids are relatively comfortable with the monologue, they're not threatened by it. It hasn't had any bad repercussions, so this one is going smoothly."